Jill Lanz, co-ordinator of Catholic Social Services’ Morning Star program, tells Archbishop Richard Smith, foreground, about the challenges and final success in finding housing for a woman who had lived in the bush near a Red Deer parking lot. Smith met with CSS staff during a listening session last month. Alan Schietzsch

Pain, hope, healing on ministry frontlines

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • February 8, 2020

EDMONTON -- The term for her was “rough sleeper” because for years she didn’t have a roof over her head.

She slept in a makeshift camp, in the bush near a Red Deer parking lot. Her name and personal details don’t matter. What is important is that for years she was alone, physically and in the trauma of her past, until she tentatively accepted help from Catholic Social Services.

“Up until being housed, she lived in the bush,” recalled Jill Lanz, co-ordinator of Morning Star, a program that began last fall to help vulnerable women in Red Deer find housing.

“I would pick her up in a parking lot close to her camp. It doesn’t matter what she was wearing or that she smelled like campfire all the time, whatever she wanted.

“For the first long time, what she wanted was to talk and not look at housing,” Lanz  said. “Until she encountered some health concerns, housing wasn’t even on her radar. She didn’t feel safe downtown. She wasn’t accessing community resources, but one of her friends who had met me then brought her and said, ‘You can talk to her.’ ”

The key was “just having connection in general and having somebody that was wholly willing to do whatever.”

Finding connection. It was a theme woven through a January listening session with Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith. The session was one of 20 similar meetings Smith has had over two-and-a-half years to find out firsthand the concerns, trials and triumphs in his “parish” — the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

Eleven social workers, counsellors and front-line staff were on hand to share their experiences with settling refugees, counselling families through Alberta’s economic downturn or helping people find a home.

Past meetings have included first responders — police, fire and ambulance service. The next will include teachers, and then health professionals. The information gathered from the listening sessions will guide the pastoral outreach of the archdiocese.

“In most cases it’s direct listening to people who share with me their lived reality,” Smith said. “Sometimes they’ll speak about it in terms of finding connections. Quite often people will speak about it in terms of finding community, whether that’s in a parish or among people who are dealing with similar situations, to find support.”

If finding that vein, that connection, is critical to diagnosing the health of a community, then the archbishop’s listening sessions are a chance to take its pulse.

Lanz described her client as a success story. She was the second person ever to be helped by Morning Star, and was referred to the program by the first.

Lanz helped her find housing in December 2019.

“For the first time in about 10 years, she was actually home for Christmas. She is slowly building up what it means to be housed, for her,” Lanz said. “And really, hers is one of intergenerational trauma and what she’s doing at this point in her life to move towards a different way, move towards healing, accessing those supports and creating those connections.”

Sometimes discovering the need for connection requires peeling back layers, CSS staff say.

An hour’s drive northwest of Red Deer is Rimbey, an oil-and-gas town that — like many others — is feeling the effects of slumping oil prices. The stress of uncertainty, finances, unemployment and hardship can present itself as stress and emotional issues among children and families.

“The kids were the ones manifesting the issue” of anger and stress, recalled family care counsellor Delicia Adams.

“It wasn’t until the kids came in the room and I worked with the family as whole; then I was able to discover ‘Oh, there’s stress in the parental system right now because Dad isn’t working, finances are tight.’ That was the main thing I noticed at the time of the economic downturn. Sometimes it’s not always as in your face as ‘Oh, we’re struggling with our finances.’ It kind of shows up in the kids first.”

Adams said her clients have a continueingneed for connection, and CSS helps them achieve that. Sometimes it’s helping them find volunteering opportunities in community or church, or reaching out for therapy when they need help.

“Sometimes just people having the courage to come and access therapy has been huge, because that’s one point of connection right there — if they’re already feeling that they are struggling to connect with people currently in their life, if they don’t feel like they can share their burdens.”

While the archbishop’s listening session was a chance for staff to talk about hardships they sometimes encounter, it was also about hope — on a case-by-case basis and in community.

“I actually see some amazing changes,” said Kathryn Friesen, director of immigration and settlement services for CSS. “Yes, the individual may be struggling but I think that society’s understanding and compassion towards people with an array of backgrounds is growing. I have a lot of hope in where we’re at now. It may have looked like families were stronger in the 50s or 60s, but while some families were doing incredibly well, we were tearing others apart because they seemed different.”

(Grandin Media)

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